ABC News anchor Dan Harris
I did the following interview for the Indian Diaspora portal.
By Mayank Chhaya
For someone whose attitude towards religion bordered on being hostile early on and has now settled on a combination of open-minded skepticism and agnosticism, it took well-known ABC News television anchor Dan Harris some work to warm up to “a completely secular variant” of Buddhist techniques of meditation.
Almost exactly 10 years after his very public nervous breakdown during a live morning broadcast, when he practically choked and froze mid-sentence, Harris is now a transformed man, courtesy of meditation.
His book “10% Happier” (It Books, an imprint of HarperCollins) has become a New York Times best-seller and Harris himself has emerged as a powerful spokesman for mediation as a way of life to address many of American society’s ills. The biggest one of them being what he calls “reactivity”.
In an extensive interview with The Indian Diaspora (TID), Harris says that reactivity happens “when you are unaware that you have a voice in your head — I wish I am not referring to schizophrenia or hearing voices — unaware that you have an inner narrator who is engaged in a non-stop conversation with yourself from the minute you wake up in the morning right until the minute you close your eyes at night.”
Being a journalist used to the rough and tumble of reporting television news out of war zones and catastrophes, Harris believes that meditation has made him a much better person and perhaps holds the key to many of the global challenges. Excerpts:
Would you say that without your very public nervous breakdown, you may not have taken the trouble to explore meditation?
I am not sure. I was assigned to cover religion by ABC and it is possible that I would have stumbled upon meditation and Buddhism through that without having had the breakdown. It is possible, yes, but I think the reason why I tell the story about the panic attack is because it is like a case study in mindlessness. It is a great example of the type of thing that can be avoided if meditation is part of your life. When I first stumbled upon meditation one of my early realizations was that ‘Oh, this voice in the head, this monkey mind that Buddha is talking about, is what led me to make all these stupid decisions that led to the on-air panic attack. It is an interesting question you ask if would I have found meditation without that panic attack. Perhaps.
How did you manage to extricate meditation for the stereotypes of, as you describe it, swamis and unwashed hippies?
The science was hugely helpful. This is just a PR problem that meditation has in this country. It was brought to this country largely by people that mainstream Americans view as offbeat to put it kindly, gurus and beat poets and hippies. And it has been talked about in a way for too long in this country that leaves too many of us out of the conversation. I think that has changed. So for me the way it was really turned around was learning about the science and learning that it is a simple brain exercise. That there is nothing to join (a place) or a special outfit (to wear) or nothing to believe in particular. There is this whole subculture of people, you know corporate executives, athletes, people in the military, who are using meditation to improve their ability to focus and to stop being yanked around by their emotions.
Meditation is a great practice in learning how to focus on one thing at a time, which is a diminishing resource in our age of status updates, emails and phone calls
There is a point that meditation is essentially divorced from any religious underpinnings. I understand that by temperament you are an agnostic. Was that in anyway a factor at all that might have brought you in?
That is correct. I am an open-minded respectful agnostic but that was always the case. I think earlier in my life I was bordering on being hostile to religion. To answer your question directly, it was extremely sine qua non for me. If this practice required me to believe in things I can’t prove, I wouldn’t have done it. This is an interesting question because there is no question that the meditation techniques that I use, and that are being tested in a lab, derive from a faith tradition which is Buddhism and from the other meditation technique that I don’t personally use but others do, is derived from Hinduism that is TM (transcendental meditation).
I can’t speak for TM but I can speak for mindfulness meditation. There are two important points to note — that there is a completely secular variant known as mindfulness stress reduction which while inspired by Buddhism is not in any way going to force it down your throat. The second thing to know, and I didn’t know this, that Buddhism is not really a religion in the way in which most Americans conceive of religion. Buddha did not claim, as you well know, did not claim to be a god and while he made a few metaphysical assertions, he explicitly told the followers you can take it or leave it. So I find Buddhism to be endlessly fascinating and closer to an exercise regime for the mind/philosophy than religion.
What sort of a learning curve was involved in terms of recognizing the fundamental strengths of meditation?
First of all, I had to get over the cultural baggage. Once I got over that my first experience was that it is hard. In some ways it was reassuring to me because I could take it out of the bucket in which I had placed it earlier as a kind of a new age practice designed for healthy commune with the universe when in fact it required a lot of grit.
In terms of seeing benefits, I felt benefits reasonably quickly. The first was that it is a great practice in learning how to focus on one thing at a time, which is a diminishing resource in our age of status updates, emails and phone calls. That was one benefit. The other was that I started developing this habit of —and it is a related benefit — in my in-between moments instead of reverting to the mode of pointless angst and mental churning when I was waiting for an elevator or I was waiting in line for security at the airport I would actually notice what’s going on right now. I found that to be an improvement in my quality of life.
The benefit of being in the moment as we say is real and it unfortunately has become a cliché but if you can cut through the cliché there is actually a lot of happiness to be derived from just focusing on where you are, even if it is unpleasant oddly enough. It is better than all the mental churning that we do about the unpleasantness. The big benefit, which took a couple of months to kick in, is mindfulness. These are all related; mindfulness –there are a lot of definitions — but my favorite working definition is the ability to see what is going on in your mind without getting carried away by it. Over time with a small amount of meditation, I was able to recognize some percentage of the time that my thoughts and impulses and urges did not need to be obeyed. Just because I was feeling angry I did not need lose my temper; because I was feeling bored I did not need to eat Oreo cookies.
You speak of meditation suffering from a towering PR problem. Why do you think that is? Is it because it is seen as a vehicle for something insidiously religious or it is just a basic lack of understanding of what it really is?
I think it is a three-part PR problem. The first part is that people are suspicious of it because they think it is religious or it is a useless hippy mind-bending technique. So there is that. And that is because, as I mentioned before, because this package was brought to this country by hippies and beat poets and gurus. People don’t understand what it is.
The second part of it is that even if people have heard of its scientific benefits and health benefits and are inclined to recognize that it could be useful, a lot of people assume that they couldn’t do it because they “can’t clear the mind.” There are a couple of responses to that. One is that meditation isn’t about clearing the mind. That is not really possible to do unless you are really a great meditator or you are dead. What meditation is about is just learning to focus on one thing at a time, getting lost, realizing you are lost, starting over and doing it a million times. A lot of people think—and I hear this a lot—“Oh, meditation I can use it but you don’t understand my mind is so busy I could never do it.”
Just because I was feeling angry I did not need lose my temper; because I was feeling bored I did not need to eat Oreo cookies
My response to that is the good news and bad news is that you are not special. Welcome to the human condition. Everybody’s mind is crazy. Meditation is not only for the people who are calm. It is for everybody who has the grit to find yourself lost in thought, recognizing you are lost in thought and bringing your attention back to the breath and doing it over and over again.
The third part is that people think they don’t have time. It is one more thing to do on their to-do list. My response to that everybody has got five minutes. And that is all that is required. I don’t have any intention of ever doing more. Over time, I saw it organically grew. I think if you do it for five minutes for the rest of your life, you will feel better. It will resist the voice in your head.
How has it informed, shaped or changed your career as a journalist?
In so many ways. It has made me an easier colleague, an easier husband. It has also allowed me to navigate a very stressful and competitive environment with a little bit more ease. I am not going to say that I am perfect. There is a reason why I call the book 10% Happier. But I recognize that there is stress, spotting and planning, a little bit of misery with the pursuit of excellence but we tend to make it worse than it needs to be. I have got significantly better at recognizing when I cross the line between what I call constructive anguish and useless rumination. That has helped me perform better at work because I am not caught in unconstructive spirals of recrimination or worry and it has also made me generally happier.
You have pegged the expectation pretty low at 10 percent, which I think is a great attitude but may inhibit those looking for nirvana in a minute or two.
Yes, this book is not for people looking for nirvana in a minute or two. Those people are misguided and are likely to be disappointed anyway. I think this country is full of self-appointed self-help gurus who tell people that all your problems can be solved the power of positive thinking. That is a very negative message to send to people. It is not going to happen. In fact, it may have a destructive impact.
If you can cure cancer through positive thinking, are you not going to see your doctor then? And how wise is that? Furthermore, it can induce a sense of shame in people because when they encounter the inevitable ups and downs of life, the trauma living in a universe characterized by impermanence, they may be tempted to think “Oh, my problems are a consequence of thinking incorrect.” That is crazy.
A child born in a refugee camp in Africa was a victim of negative thinking in utero? I don’t think so. Or a guy who lived through the earthquake in Haiti, does that mean the entire city of Port-au-Prince thinking negatively? No, I think that had to do with the tectonic plates. I really react negatively to that. So the 10 percent is a joke. Happiness is impossible to quantify. We can have a rational discussion about it.
I am intrigued by the notion of enlightenment. May be there are people who practice enough or maybe there are circumstances of their life that conspire to create a certain spiritual awakening. May be there are people like that but I don’t know a lot of people who have experienced either of those. But for the rest of us, 10% is a pretty good number, a pretty good return on investment. From my experience, that investment compounds annually. My baseline for happiness continues to go up.
What do you think ails the modern American society the most that meditation might be able to help address?
Reactivity. When you are unaware that you have a voice in your head—I wish I am not referring to schizophrenia or hearing voices—unaware that you have an inner narrator who is engaged in a non-stop conversation with yourself from the minute you wake up in the morning right until the minute you close your eyes at night.
That conversation, that voice, yanks you around that leads you to losing your temper on the road and engaging in road rage or losing your temper with your children and not being great parent sometimes or mistreating our colleagues… I think if we can reduce blind reactivity even by 10 percent, imagine what that would do to our politics, to parenting, to the way we behave on the road, to the quality of our journalism, to the quality of our interactions in almost every area of our life. I think that has the potential to have a significant impact on American society and global society.